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The Real 2012 Problem: Two Candidates Afraid Of The Past

Forget the future. Obama and Romney haven't even figured out how to talk about their own records.

Posted on August 3, 2012, at 7:44 a.m. ET

Charles Dharapak / AP

For a presidential candidate, downplaying your failures is a pretty obvious strategy. But running from your highest-profile successes?

Welcome to the 2012 presidential campaign, where the reluctance of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to discuss their own records extends even to their most notable accomplishments in government. Pundits complain that the candidates haven't laid out detailed plans for the future, as if campaign promises carried real weight. The candidates' inability to reckon with their own pasts — that is, with reality — is the more disturbing trend, and the one that has hollowed out the core of this election campaign.

Consider three of the defining achievements of Obama’s first term: healthcare, the stimulus, and killing Osama bin Laden. And national highlights of Romney’s time in government, like Massachusetts health care reform and a first-in-the-nation assault weapons ban. Both nominees have substantial records to run on, but for various political reasons, have deemed it best to soft-pedal them.

In Obama's case, when the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, it validated the largest social legislation since the New Deal — and a goal that has eluded every Democratic President since Lyndon Johnson. Yet, in the face of polls that show Americans favor repealing the law, Obama seemed more intent on changing the subject than running a victory lap. In an address designed to tout the Court victory, the president concluded by sounding like he was wrapping up a losing fight, telling Americans it was “time for us to move forward,,” while his chief strategist David Axelrod took to Twitter to suggest it was time “to move on.”

Advertising data tells the same story: According to a CNN study last month, the president’s campaign actually spent less in paid advertising spotlighting the law than had Romney‘s.

Another big Obama policy getting little love is the stimulus. A re-investment in American jobs and infrastructure loaded with tax cuts, the 2009 bill ultimately had a major growth impact on national jobs. But as Joe Biden acknowledged in a 2010 interview with ABC News, selling the thing was a “hard slog, man.” So while Romney launched an ad last week bashing the program for “political payoffs,” the president didn’t single it out once in his 35-minute campaign announcement speech. The reason? Americans consistently disapprove of the measure, believing it wasted money and grew the debt.

Then there’s the signature national security achievement of the Obama presidency: Taking out bin Laden. On this, the President’s handling gets high marks from Americans (legitimate concerns notwithstanding). But after Republicans accused him of politicizing the effort (in what Michele Bachmann might only call “chootspa”), Obama’s zeal to promote it has tempered, lest he be accused of “spiking the football.” In an April web video, the president’s campaign suggested Romney might not have made the same call to target bin Laden in a raid. But after a throng of GOP officials cried foul over the claim, it largely disappeared.

So, while George W. Bush could run ads laden with 9/11 imagery, and Dick Cheney explicitly said that a vote for John Kerry risked “we’ll get hit again,” bin Laden is no longer a feature of advertisements for Obama, and the topic typically receives a total of 1-2 sentences in his campaign stump speeches.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is also using the “Pay No Attention to the Accomplishments Behind the Curtain” playbook.

As everyone knows, RomneyCare has become less a proud legacy — over 95 percent of his state’s residents have insurance, and large majorities approve of the law — and more a paralyzing albatross. Like many leading Republicans, Romney went from supporting a mandate-backed plan to hammering it after Obama’s embrace. This politically-motivated reversal was not unusual among Republicans, but for a nominee, it’s meant remorsefully running from his biggest achievement, and sorrowfully calling for Obamacare’s repeal, lest he offend his party or inadvertently defend the president. No Apology, indeed.

Another nationally significant Romney accomplishment was signing the first permanent assault weapons ban of any state in the union, after the federal version expired in 2004. Notably, the Massachusetts ban outlawed a type of weapon, an AR-15, used in the recent Aurora shooting. But given his party’s allergy to gun control, you won’t hear Romney touting this fact. To wit, after the shooting, the onetime leader on gun violence carefully declined to mention his past on the issue, unless asked, and his repeated position during the campaign has been opposition to any restrictions. Suffice to say, this is not an accomplishment Romney likes to discuss.

Of course, all of this raises a critical question: Does it matter if the nominees are unusually reticent about their records?

This election cycle, a common complaint has been that Romney and Obama have not spoken enough about which forward-looking policy plans they’d implement – a phenomenon that’s been called the No-Policy problem, the Smallest Campaign Ever, and inevitably, the Seinfeld Election. In this week's David Brooks column on why this is “The Dullest Campaign Ever,” the criticism ranks number four.

But while that particular trend has gotten more attention, it's the candidates’ efforts to gloss over their records — not just the failures, but the goals they actually accomplished — that should be more alarming. Promises or policy proposals offered by candidates may offer us guidance as to their priorities, but they’re obviously not sworn over an oath. If you’re looking for real clues to how a candidate might govern, their past is the only factual basis we have.

To put it more bluntly, in politics, the future is a fiction. If campaign pronouncements were real plans never to be violated and always deliverable, there would have been a drastic shift in US foreign policy between the last two administrations; the individual mandate for health care would have been off the table; Mitt Romney would be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights; and the last two presidents would have fundamentally changed the tone in Washington.

In the best-case scenario, policy proposals are sincere plans that someone will try to implement, if elected – assuming that the political realities and their partners in government will allow them (no sure thing).

In the worst of scenarios, they’re gimmicks cooked up not by the policy director of the campaign, but the advertising director or the pollster or the candidate’s spouse, all with one goal in mind: to win a campaign. (Hint: Anytime you see a candidate for a major office call for a gas tax holiday, it may not have come from the policy director).

This isn’t to say that voters shouldn’t concern themselves with what candidates will do, if elected. Of course they should. The point is, you may be able to learn more about what candidates will do not by looking at what they propose during a campaign, but what they’ve actually done in office previously.

And these are clues that, so far, neither nominee for President seems eager to broadcast.